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Making good choices for your characters

This past Saturday I spent some time reflecting on how the choices we make tell others about our own character. In that post, I promised an article on how that applies to fiction. That promise has been on my mind ever since, and I may only banish it by writing about it.

First, a quick poll. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the following in a TV show: The hero manages to get the drop on the antagonist. The hero’s gun is drawn. The antagonist is backed into a corner. The drama is high. It feels like the climax of the show, except there’s one problem—the hero doesn’t just shoot the damn villain and be done with it.

Is your hand up? Yup, mine is, too.

Now, you know, and I know, and the show’s writers know that when the show does finish the villain is going to be dead. One way or another, we all know that’s going to happen. So why doesn’t the hero shoot? Well, there’s one little problem. There’s still 20 minutes left in the show and you can’t very well dispose of the bad guy now! What would you do for the next 20 minutes? All the drama would be gone!

So, the good guy doesn’t shoot. The bad guy somehow escapes, and the story continues. Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

The story problem (or to put it more bluntly, the writer’s problem of figuring out how to drag a thin story out for another 20 minutes), has only been traded for something worse: a characterization problem. It’s a solution that leaves the viewer wondering why the hero is such a friggin’ idiot: He’s got the bad guy literally in his sights. Whatever nefarious doings the villain has been up to, the hero can put a stop to it right then and there. So why doesn’t he? Within the world of the story, within the events leading up to that moment, there’s no good reason at all not to. Yet, the obvious thing fails to happen and the viewer is left with no choice but to conclude that the hero is a moron.

I hate when that happens in TV shows and cinema. But sadly, it happens all too often in books, too.

When this happens, a good writer will go back and enhance the events that have led up to that pivotal moment so they take 20 more minutes—or a hundred more pages—so the climax naturally happens at the end, where it’s supposed to, at a moment when the hero really can go ahead and pull the trigger.

A mediocre writer will turn their character into an idiot, because they’re excited to move on to the next scene and the ultimate really really big finish they’ve had in mind since they started the book.

Don’t do that to your characters. Please. You’re a writer, right? Writers are supposed to love their characters. Why would you do that to someone you love?

What I’ve described is the (sadly, all too common) extreme case of bad characterization through poor decision making. Don’t just worry about the big situations in your novels. Choices happen at all levels, throughout a book.

Good novels continually present their main characters with crises: problems, challenges and obstacles to overcome. Some will be small, some will be grand. A mediocre writer will let their characters do the first thing that comes to mind that solves the writer’s problem. A good writer will let their character do the smart thing in that situation, even if doing so creates other challenges for the writer. A great writer will construct the situation such that there is only one thing the character can do, and it’s simultaneously the smart thing but also unpleasant or difficult.

At every moment where your characters are faced with a non-trivial choice (I’m not talking about “hmm, mocha, or espresso?” situations), you must ask yourself some questions:

What do I want the character to do for reasons of advancing the plot in the direction I want it to go?

What is the smart thing to do, that a real, intelligent person would do in this situation?

If the answer to those questions are the same, you’re in good shape. If not, you know what to do: fix the setup so they are the same. You’re not done yet, though. Having decided what the character should do, ask yourself a third, pivotal question:

What does that choice reveal about the character?

This goes beyond “does it make your character look like an idiot?” Was it a difficult choice for the character to make? Does the character have to sacrifice anything by making that choice? If not, you risk making your character seem risk-averse, someone who takes the easy way out.

Did the character come to that choice immediately, or did he/she have to wrestle with other courses of action before deciding what to do? Even if there really is only one viable choice, if the character immediately jumps to that decision you run the risk of making your character seem rash or reckless. (Worse, if the choice isn’t necessarily obvious, you show your hand by making the plot seem foreordained. But that’s a subject for another article.)

If you don’t like what the choice says about the character, go back to the first two questions and start over.

Like I said in my earlier post, choices are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal as a writer. So have a care. What your characters choose, how they choose it, how they arrive at their choices, and even how they feel about those choices: all of it contributes enormously to how readers perceive your characters.

Yes, it’s work. Yes, you may have to think hard to find the right choice for the character. Nobody said this was easy, but don’t turn your beloved characters into idiots (or worse) by worrying about solving your writing problem more than you worry about how best to portray your characters.

July 07, 2009 21:54 UTC

Tags: choice, character, hero, villain, smart, idiot

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